Friday, March 31, 2006

Generous Motors

Growing up in Detroit and working for years at Chrysler, we always referred to GM as “Generous” Motors. That was tongue-in-cheek sarcasm, because in those years GM was anything but generous. In the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s and beyond, they were always the guys to beat. They built a car for less than $500 in variable costs, while Chrysler struggled to get down to $1,000; Ford wasn’t much better, and AMC was the accident waiting to happen. GM management was so tough that they became known around town as the “heart attack machine”. Senior managers beat so hard on middle managers that the heart attack rate among these people, became alarmingly high. I know from personal experience: My wife’s father was chief mechanical engineer of GM’s realty and construction division and he had two heart attacks as a young man, which ultimately cut short his promising career. He was literally one of hundreds affected by the ruthless, cut-throat management environment that was GM in those years. I formed an opinion during my years in Detroit that the managers who shouted the loudest were people who had indeed risen to the level of their own incompetence.

Paradoxically, what happened to GM (as well as the others of the “big three”), primarily in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, is that they actually did become “generous”, for all the wrong reasons. The UAW found managements’ weak spot: they just couldn’t bear to take a strike and possibly give up market share to one of their competitors. So, if the union bargained hard enough they virtually always got what they wanted and everybody laughed all the way to the bank. Management didn’t have to bite the bullet of labor strife, thereby risking their own status and inflated compensation packages, UAW officials always got re-elected, and hourly workers got ever-increasing pay checks and benefits, as did all the salaried workers who automatically received the same benefits and pay raises. So everyone was fat, dumb and happy. I can remember shaking my head at the idea that I would have a whole week off (with pay of course) at Christmas, as well as my birthday every year. I was always too busy.

So, all of this compounded over the years to the point that the American auto industry became so financially cumbersome, poorly managed, and virtually controlled by the UAW, that they literally could not compete with foreign manufacturers building cars with non-union U.S. labor. Can you imagine a labor provision requiring a company to keep thousands of laid-off workers in a “jobs bank”, doing community service for years while collecting full pay and benefits? I can’t, and neither can the Japanese manufacturers down the road.

I am often asked if I believe GM can avoid bankruptcy. My answer is always: “They shouldn’t”. In my view, Chapter 11 is the only way to save GM from themselves and the union. Like the airlines, management in bankruptcy can eliminate ponderous salary and benefit provisions (and the jobs bank!) once and for all. Also, it presents a once in a lifetime opportunity to bring fresh management thinking to an industry that has always been run by people who grew up in the business; usually in the same company. Nepotism has also run rampant, from the shop floor to top management. Note the Fords, who always seem to rise to the top job at Ford in times of strife, whether or not they are competent (usually not). In my view, this inbred management tradition is the primary reason they haven’t made good product decisions. People in Detroit really don’t get it about product, and that isn’t something new. So, if the bankruptcy court is wise, they will cede management of a bankrupt GM to outside professionals, who could care less about “how we have always done it around here”. Also, that ultimate old boys club, the dealer network, needs to be changed drastically, but no one in Detroit has ever been strong enough to tackle it. Jacques Nasser, who was CEO of Ford several years ago, began making noises in that direction, just before he was sacked and succeeded by the ultimate PR man, Bill Ford. In the world of the internet, cars should not be sold from vast inventories held by dealers and floor-planned by captive auto finance companies. This is a huge misuse of capital, but very convenient for keeping assembly lines cranking when cars aren’t selling. Cars should be ordered on-line and delivered “just-in-time”, and dealers should be delivery and servicing agents; obviously very different from today and probably only achievable “in extremis” of bankruptcy. By the way, I’m waiting for the Japanese to figure this one out.

Frankly, I have very little hope that much of this is going to happen. I’m pessimistic about Detroit and I do not believe the U.S. auto industry is too big to fail. However, we have no way of knowing when the band-aids will fall off. In the meantime, we will continue to insulate ourselves as much as possible from financial shocks by owning value-creating companies vs. value-destroyers like Ford and “Generous Motors”. And, yes, there are others out there, but none quite so bad.

Let me know what you think.

Jack Falker

Note: At the time of publication, neither the clients of FalkerInvestments Inc. nor Jack and Peter Falker held long or short positions in GM or F.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Safe Harbor

The following post about the inverted yield curve was submitted by a client of FalkerInvestments.

“The Fed Chairman said recently that the Fed is studying the concept that a growing excess of global investment liquidity (which may continue to grow indefinitely) has found its way into the long term U.S. Treasury market. This excess global investment liquidity may be the principal source/cause of the current U.S. inverted yield curve. If this supply of liquidity continues to exceed alternative business investment opportunities on a global basis, an inverted yield curve could become the rule, not the exception.

“Apparently an excess of global investment liquidity was the principal cause of an inverted yield curve situation, which existed for a number years during the late 50's and early 60's, until Federal deficit spending associated with the Vietnam War and a fear of long term price inflation came to dominate the thinking of global investors, who abandoned long-dated Treasuries, thereby causing long-term interest rates to escalate relative to short term interest rates.

“Let's face it, the USA, even with all of its many problems, is still the safest harbor in the world for investors to "park" long term idle investment capital.”

-FI Client

Saturday, March 11, 2006

FI Update - 3/11/06

To Our Investors and Friends:

The equity markets ended the week on a positive note, with short-term good news on U.S. Payrolls. That seemed to counteract long-term macro-economic news earlier in the week on the ever-worsening U.S. trade deficit. If the order of the announcements had been reversed, market results would likely have been significantly worse, since the trade-deficit implications greatly outweigh employment data in the longer term. But that’s how the markets work in the short term, irrational though that may seem.

We have seen nothing to contradict our opinion that we are in the midst of an economic dichotomy, i.e. in a micro-economic, short-term context, things are going pretty well, but in a macro-economic, long-term context, they’re not going well at all. The bond market continues to reflect this dichotomy, with a virtually flat yield curve. For example, at the end of the week, the 30-year Treasury bond yielded 4.74% vs. the 10-year at 4.72%, the three-year at 4.76% and the 90-day T-bill at 4.46%. Anyone want a 30 or 10-year bond when you can get virtually the same yield at 90 days? Hardly! There is clearly something wrong with this picture, and the economists we read (who don’t have a political agenda) are rending their garments waiting for the next shoe to drop, and long-term interest rates to start rising.

So far, it hasn’t happened, and it may be some time before it does, because there are so many dollars in the hands of foreign governments who need to keep those dollars invested. In other words, it’s a matter of supply and demand, until some better investment comes along for those foreign dollar-owners. The Dubai ports deal, which we have heard so much about recently, is a good case in point of a vast excess of foreign dollars trying to find a permanent equity ownership home in the U.S.A., their country of origin. Look for many more such efforts by foreign governments, particularly China and the Arab oil producers.

We saw some movement this week toward higher international interest rates when the Bank of Japan abandoned its long-standing zero interest rate policy (ZIRP), signaling an end to five years of deflationary economic trends. Long-term U.S. rates immediately moved up several basis points; in other words, long-term U.S. government rates were actually lower (and more inverted) a week ago than those quoted above.

For the moment, we feel comfortable with a close to fully invested position in properly valued, dividend-paying stocks. This week we deployed some of the profits we took earlier in the year (see our 2/09/06 blog note) by taking a core position in TCF Financial (TCB). We have done very well with this high-quality holding in the past and have re-entered at a level lower than our last very profitable sale of this stock. Incidentally, when we last sold TCB we redeployed that capital in Moody’s (MCO), which has since doubled in value. TCB is an excellent Minneapolis-based national bank, with a growing retail base, which keeps its cost of funds (which it calls “Power Liabilities”) among the lowest in the business. TCB ranks first among the 50 largest banks in Return on Equity (ROE), one of the most important statistics in the banking business. It also pays a very bond-competitive 3.5% dividend. Right down our EVA alley!

We welcome your comments and observations.

Jack and Peter